Davos: Mindfulness, Hotspots, and Sleepwalkers

I just returned from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. I came away with three observations: mindfulness is approaching a tipping point; human energy hotspots are the real attractor; and collective sleepwalkers remain dominant.
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I just returned from the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. I came away with three observations: mindfulness is approaching a tipping point; human energy hotspots are the real attractor; and collective sleepwalkers remain dominant.

Mindfulness. Mindfulness is close to reaching a tipping point. Only two years ago, mindfulness and mindful leadership were discussed at the WEF for the first time. Since then, almost all of the mindfulness-related events there have been oversubscribed. Mindfulness practices like meditation are now used in technology companies such as Google and Twitter (amongst others), in traditional companies in the car and energy sectors, in state-owned enterprises in China, and in UN organizations, governments, and the World Bank. As Loic Le Meur, a serial tech entrepreneur from Silicon Valley puts it: "It's funny, everyone I know has started meditating. In the Valley, there's a real social pressure on you [to do it]. Six months ago I gave in and started my own daily practice."

What is happening? Here are three drivers of this trend:

  • New tech: our hyperconnectivity and fast-paced lives have caused us to disconnect more and more from ourselves.
  • New challenges: leaders are facing more situations that require them to access their self-awareness and emotional intelligence in order to be successful.
  • New science: the past ten years have brought breakthrough research in cognition science, particularly about the impact of mindfulness on brain plasticity. As cognition scientist Richard Davidson puts it: Even a few hours of meditation can change the epigenetics of our brain.

After I hosted an evening session on mindfulness in Davos, the CEO of a private equity fund said to me: "This night was a turning point for me. I realized that as a leader and a human being I not only need to engage in training and practices that keep up my physical fitness, but I can also engage in training and practices that develop and keep up my quality of mindfulness. This has been my most important experience in Davos this year."

Hotspots. My second observation concerns hotspots of energy. What makes 2,500 of the world's elite business, government and thought leaders in civil society travel to this remote and (otherwise) sleepy small town in Switzerland? My sense is that they come to participate in a distributed field of energy hotspots. What fuels these hotspots? It's not the big staged events. It's not the tightly structured panels and speeches by heavy hitters and big names. There's a field of human interconnectivity that flows through the corridors, lounges, coffee bars, dinner tables, evening parties, and shuttle rides. It's like an inverted or flipped event: the formal public events are just an occasion to get together, a backdrop; but the real event, the real encounters and learning, happens in the fluid and mostly self-organizing space outside the meeting rooms. It was in that space that South Africa's Nelson Mandela and F. W. De Klerk had their first sit-down meeting in 1992. It is this self-organizing aspect of the WEF that could be developed and focused much more intentionally on the central challenges of our time (see below).

Sleepwalkers. Observation number three: Davos is a mirror of the world as it currently is. Looking into that mirror, what do we see? We see 1914. Let me explain.

In his excellent book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, British historian Christopher Clark argues that

the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.

European leaders "sleepwalked into 1914" essentially because all of the parties involved analyzed the larger situation from a narrow, shortsighted, self-interested perspective that didn't anticipate the long term consequences of their individual decisions for the whole system. There simply was no place in which the players could have come together to jointly consider the impact of their decisions on the entire European and global community. The outcome? World War I, the Versailles Treaty, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the Cold War. Seventy years of totalitarian systems in major parts of the world, over 100 million casualties. What is the situation today? In principle, it is the same.

The standard rhetoric of the financial elite at the WEF--that the economy is back, or coming back--and the official political rhetoric about sustainable development or "sustainable growth" gave me a queasy feeling. Their operating assumption seemed to be that by doing more of the same, we will be able to deal with the major challenges of our time. Nothing could be further from the truth. The official rhetoric only sounds good as long as you are completely ignorant of - or choose to ignore - the facts. What do these facts tell us?

The Three Divides. Societies around the planet are dealing with three divides: ecological, social, and spiritual.

  • The ecological divide is represented by the number 1.5: we use resources at 1.5 times the rate the earth can regenerate them. In other words, we have a split between the self and nature.
  • The social divide is represented by the number 1 billion: roughly 1 billion people live in extreme poverty; we have a split between the self and the Other.
  • The spiritual divide is manifest in a split between one's current self and one's highest future possibility (emerging self). We have increasing rates of burnout, depression, and suicide. On a macro level, in developed societies, higher GDP does not translate into greater well-being (more happiness). In short: although we're busier than ever producing and consuming stuff, our rate of happiness and well-being is going down.

The Davos mirror on the world highlights a key feature of our current reality: as in 1914, there is a profound disconnect between financial and political elites on the one hand and the real situation that is about to unfold on the ground--the real impact of their decisionmaking on the whole system. Anyone who claims that "more of the same" will put our societies on the path of well-being and shared prosperity is either cynical or in denial of the facts--in short, is sleepwalking.

So Clark's diagnosis of sleepwalkers that are watchful but unseeing and blind to the whole applies as much for 2014 as it does for 1914. What would it take to awaken us, the collective sleepwalkers? What would it take to apply the power of mindfulness (which we have seen emerging in individuals and small communities) on the larger systemic issues, on bridging the three divides? How can we evolve and transform capitalism and democracy in a way that reframes the intellectual and institutional foundations from ego-system awareness to eco-system awareness--in order to generate well-being for all?

My next blog entry will focus on that question.

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